- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Euphoria returned for season two this week in typically explosive style. Has the show's long time away helped it to address some of the controversies that made it famous?
Moral panic at explicit content in TV and film is, at least in the mainstream, slightly out of fashion. Fringe controversies from extreme religious or political groups are still dime-a-dozen, but it’s not often that one gains traction in the traditional media. That’s probably why HBO’s Euphoria made such a splash when it dropped its first season in 2019. Some viewers – and critics – were stunned by the somewhat vivid sex scenes and nudity in screens featuring teenage characters. The scene set in a boys’ locker room featuring “30 penises” practically became a viral legend (it was meant to be more).
Everything in Euphoria was extreme – the drugs, the violence, the sex, the eye make-up. That was its proud MO. Nothing, of course, was technically wrong about the show’s content, given all major actors on the show are well into their twenties, but it gave the show a reputation, one it wore with some pride.
Then, as with so much of our favourite TV, the show went away for quite a while. Head creator Sam Levinson did produce two specials in the interim focusing on Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) respectively, though the COVID-necessitated intimacy of the episodes meant they were, by necessity, very atypical for Euphoria. In terms of catching up with the majority of the cast and resuming the main narrative, we had to wait a solid two and a half years.
It’d be enough time, you might wonder, for Levinson to consider a different approach. Would Euphoria change course in its second instalment in the direction of those quieter and more reflective special episodes, or lean in further to the dramatic aspects that got it all the attention in season one? Well, Monday’s premiere gave us a pretty good answer, which is that Levinson is leaning all the way in.
Three minutes into the narrative flashback that opens the premiere, and we have a graphic shooting scene where the victim’s erect penis pops into camera. A few minutes later, a baby munches a cigarette. Along the way, there are more penises, a lot of heroin and a culminating beat-down that is exceptionally meaty. It’s a return that can be best described as full throttle – and because Euphoria has never seen a metaphor that it can’t soak in neon and spell out for you, there is a scene where two characters hang out of a car while gunning the accelerator past 100 mph.
The question whether it’s a good thing that Euphoria is like this. The answer is, unfortunately, a little more complicated than the question. There are really two ways of viewing “good”, anyhow – on a purely moral level, and an artistic one. It might sound weird to bring morality into the question, but that was undoubtedly at the core of the backlash to season one. It’s that old chestnut: the idea that popular media, especially that which depicts or is aimed at young people, can have some corrupting effect on those who consume it. Moral panics are oftentimes a big old social worry about protecting the young from evil outside influence. You know, like Helen Lovejoy on The Simpsons: “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”.
There’s less grounds for that argument, I think. Moral panics have fallen out of fashion for plenty of good reasons, chief among them being the recognition that it can be helpful rather than harmful for people to see the world as it really is, rather than a sanitised version of it. There’s a pretty good case to be made that Euphoria isn’t really the world as it is for most teenagers – more on that later – but the issues it tackles, such as addiction, depression, gender dysphoria, homophobia and sexual abuse are very much real and very much grim. The same goes for the penises, really, because human bodies do exist. Sure, the way it goes about it is extremely blunt instrument – did there need to be 30? – but it’s not concocting themes or images out of thin air purely to spook viewers, rather simply exaggerating them for dramatic effect.
Perhaps more importantly, the modern audience is intelligent enough to tell the difference between fiction and reality. The drama in Euphoria is so heightened, every emotion conveyed so noisily, that nobody is about to mistake it for a documentary on real teenage life. It’s an entertainment show, and it doesn’t claim to be presenting scenarios where you’re meant to approve of the morals of everyone involved. Depiction does not have to equal endorsement, which is an idea even teenagers can pick up.
Also, and this is secondary, but American high school dramas love to cast actors who are about 25 to play 17-year-olds. Euphoria does not hide that it knows you are not really watching teenagers. It’s practically an unspoken contract with the viewer at this point.
So, the morality question is a little stuffy. The quality question is knottier. There is an obvious utility to the hard drugs, the penises and the cigarette eating, in that it depicts a dark and unflinching world which the characters inhabit. Whether all those things are actually needed in order to depict that point… is harder to say. Euphoria’s usual choice in any given scenario is to do The Most, and that can lead to the show overegging it on the shock value often.
It’s not enough to show a drug deal potentially going wrong – all the characters in the scene have to strip naked. It’s not enough to know a character has been shot in the knees – we have to see their legs get blown out. It’s not enough to know that Nate (Jacob Elordi) is a creep with no boundaries – we have to spend an excruciating two minutes watching him practically nuzzle McKay (Algee Smith) as Nate grills him about whether he just had sex with Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), whom of course Nate just has. In concert, all of these things can lead to a slightly overwhelming effect, like shotgunning a cold black coffee. Maximalism is Euphoria’s brand, but it doesn’t have to be its only trick in the book.
Shock value is ultimately a fast-burn dramatic trick. It’ll get a rise out of the viewer, but the impact fades fast and often fails to linger in the memory. Euphoria’s special episodes understood that idea well, building their dramatic impact slowly through carefully examining their central characters and letting the audience figure things out for themselves about their mental states. It’s a show that was capable of breathtaking poignance in season one when it eased off its compulsion to tell the viewer what to think, like in the exceptional season one finale sequence that intercut Cassie’s abortion with a hallucinatory dance number set to Arcade Fire that clued us into how Cassie finds comfort in hard situations.
Euphoria is also capable of having a pretty wicked sense of humour himself. Zendaya has proven herself to be a queen of deadpan in both this and her Spider-Man role, and the show often uses that to great effect. The final moments of the episode, where Rue watches Fez (Angus Cloud) dramatically beat up Nate and turns to camera with an impressed “damn”, are a really effective way to undercut the histrionic emotions of the episode and show how the stakes aren’t life or death for everyone involved. Euphoria’s self-seriousness tends to prevail, but it’s not unaware of how overwhelming it can be, and that’s a useful thing to have.
Shock value isn’t bad because of its moral dangers, but rather that it can be an ineffective way of telling a story in the long term. If Euphoria is going to hold viewer attention in the long term, it might just have to turn down the abrasion a notch and embrace its quieter and more humorous sides in equal measure. It’s certainly capable of that, even in season two – the scenes where Lexi (Maude Apatow) and Fez chat and bond are some of the episode’s best, and it’s just two people talking calmly on a sofa – but the question of whether it wants to do so is a different one. Shock value is what drives big social media engagement and those juicy moral panic clicks, and Euphoria is nothing if not dialled into viewer expectations. Season two, then, will be a good measure of what Euphoria really cares about – good stories or big stories.